Oct. 8, 2014 1:15 pm

Everyday Sustainability: Backyard Chickens, Composting and Sustainability

This series, simply titled Sustainability for the Everyday, came from the author’s experience of becoming a parent for the first time. While the author imagines that tips and insights may be found in this series, his bigger goal is to explore the choices he makes and why he makes them when it comes to trying […]

This series, simply titled Sustainability for the Everyday, came from the author’s experience of becoming a parent for the first time. While the author imagines that tips and insights may be found in this series, his bigger goal is to explore the choices he makes and why he makes them when it comes to trying to live a “sustainable life.” This is all in the effort to show that yes, a person can always do more, but let’s also recognize the good that we all try to do everyday.

Read the first in this series here.

Since the birth of my son, my other nurturing duties have severely suffered: our dog gets far fewer walks, I don’t think I’ve picked the cat up all week, and the veggies and flowers in our yard really only get attention every Monday during Farm Day with our community growers on Emerald Street Urban Farm.

But there is one group of beings that have not changed their emotions at all since our son came into the world — our chickens.

Although it seems that telling chicken stories is always the crowd pleaser when I give book readings these days, I must admit that they are sometimes easy to forget about. Aside from the fact that they never cause a problem, these incredible animals just need their feed tray filled once a day and a topping off of the water can to provide us with dozens of eggs every week.

But according to the Grid Magazine cover story last month, this is not the case for many in the Philadelphia area. One couple featured in the story kept backyard chickens in their South Philadelphia neighborhood until the day when a man claiming to be animal control (accompanied by a news crew) showed up at their door to take the chickens away.

Not only did this couple lose their chickens, but they also decided to leave Philadelphia for the greener pastures of Vermont. Some disgruntled neighbors may say good riddance, but I think that’s short sighted.

As the article also pointed out, there was a time during World War II when keeping chickens was looked at as every American’s patriotic duty, no matter if they lived in the city or the country. By raising chickens, the US Government determined that citizens could produce their own food, especially protein through eggs, to take the strain off of the food system that was being taxed by the war effort.

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As many local food advocates, climate change activists and even President Obama acknowledged at the UN summit, climate change may pose a greater threat than any actual war that the US or world could face today.

So what better way is there to alleviate the strain on our resources such as fossil fuel and farmland than by encouraging citizens to grow their own food and keep backyard chickens? I can honestly say that having these fresh eggs is not a novelty, and that our chickens provide food for at least 4-5 meals per week.

But an even more important function of chickens is their ability to process waste. Chickens are incredible composters. I like to brag that I have almost never thrown my household food waste away ever since I moved to Philadelphia.

In both my West Philly rental, and now my home in Kensington, I made sure to carefully construct my backyard compost bin out of old shipping pallets and found wood. Even though I sometimes barely hung on to the ratio of browns to greens to make the composting work, I had always been able to maintain a bin that does not smell and keeps breaking down.

However, in recent years, this has been hard to keep up with, especially with the mass amounts of weeds and refuse we create at Emerald Street Urban Farm. And as my wife and I discuss having another child and our son begins eating solid food, our waste will just increase.

That’s where the chickens come in.

Every farm day, I fill the grounds of their coop with everything from crabgrass and chickweed to damaged collard greens and rotted tomatoes. And at least two or three times a week, I skip the compost bin and throw our collected kitchen scraps into the coop as well. It’s a good penance for a littered city with an overtaxed sanitation system — there have been times when we have gone two weeks without needing to put a can of trash out.

This is a win all around: Our increasing waste stream continues to be diverted from the landfill and city streets, our chickens are happy and well fed, and we barely have to pay anything for farm fresh eggs aside from the monthly bag of feed that clocks in at a whopping $20, which if my math serves me puts our eggs at about $1.75 a dozen.

Now, as is the aim of this series, I completely understand that I have a unique situation. And I certainly don’t expect Philadelphians who have a small backyard patio to easily make the case to their neighbors that not only will they be keeping chickens outside year round, but will also be throwing food scraps in the coop as well.

Even though some Philadelphians are blessed with more space than others, you can get creative on where you keep a coop: you could create one on a rooftop or in shared space in a community garden.

It certainly is not easy, but when your family’s egg production goes up and your waste production goes down, you’ll find that it’s worth the effort. And hopefully, our city government will realize that it’s also worth changing the 2006 law banning chickens in the city.

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Nic Esposito is a writer, novelist, urban farmer and founder of The Head & The Hand Press. His forthcoming book of essays Kensington Homestead is due out November 2014.


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